The Week

The week in review

Whew! What a week. It seems the great things that have been brewing in Danish comics for the last few years are finally starting to make waves, what with a year of excellent and innovative homegrown comics, the resurrected Ping Awards, plans proceeding for an official educational track for comics makers at the fine Animation Workshop in Viborg, and the ambitious further development of the comics festival, which has now changed its name to Copenhagen Comics and will once again be held in Øksnehallen, Copenhagen, in 2013 — bigger and better than ever, if the current signs are to be believed.

It’s all still baby steps of course, and there’s a long way to go before we can talk about genuine consolidation in terms of financial security or cultural clout. As things are, much of all this is run on a volunteer basis and a shoestring budget and it remains hard to muster the support, public or private, for comics accorded to other art forms in the country.

Still, the will seems to be there and good comics continue to be made. The photo above is from the release on Thursday of sometime Bunker denizen and my long-time collaborator (and Danish Comics Council chairman, and Ping director) Thomas Thorhauge’s latest comic, Det sidste ord (‘The Last Word’). The book compiles a series of strips done for the film section of the daily Politiken from 2009-2010, adding two longer, similar strips from elsewhere as well as a brand new one.

The concept is one that harks back to “M”, his contribution to BLÆK, an anthology we edited together in 2006 — a comic reprinted in English in the Fantagraphics/Aben Maler production From Wonderland with Love. Thomas takes authentic quotes from figures of interest and illustrates them in comics form. In the case of the Politiken strips, the focus is a diverse range of personalities from cinema. (One, on Godard, is republished in English here).

In the newspaper, they were primarily fun, satirical mini-portraits of the celebrities involved, but taken together they become much more than that — Thomas has been sensitive to certain types of quotes, dealing with issues of vanity, desire, aging, legacy, and death, and has crafted from them an acutely personal statement on life, all the while producing a very funny book. A direct jump from his last book’s youthful aspirations to something anticipating mid-life reflection. Give it a (second) look.

Photo by Frederik Høyer-Christensen. The entire set is here.

This week’s links:

  • Obama on Iran. The American President talks to Jeffrey Goldberg in anticipation of his meeting today with the Israeli Prime Minster and his address at AIPAC.
  • Carl Th. Dreyer on his métier. Recorded at the Copenhagen cinemathèque in 1968, Dreyer answers questions from film students a few weeks before his death. Fantastic, although sadly not subtitled in English (yet?). (Thanks @monggaard!)
  • Matt Seneca on Guido Crepax. A passionate examination of the comics of the Italian master. Replete with rather shaky assertions, but great on observation.
  • Danish Comics of the Year 2011

    This year, Danish comics culture is seeing the revival of the Ping Awards, an industry award last given back in the Nineties. Once a hall of fame prize, it is now awards cartoonists in five categories in the manner of the Angoulême Fauves. This year focuses on comics published in 2011, and five Danish comics have been selected in their particular category. Although I didn’t participate in the nomination process, I was involved in organizing the event, and was part of the jury that selected Rikke Bakman’s Glimt as Danish Comic of the Year. So I’m biased, but I can say immediately that it was very hard indeed to select a winner. Here are the five nominees — for my money not just the five best Danish comics of last year, but the strongest showing in Danish comics for a long time.


    The Ping Awards gala last night? A success, no doubt about it. Sold out, full house, crowded and fun! The young event team had pulled out all the stops and were almost entirely stress-free. Things just worked.

    Anyway, this was a major event in the small subculture that Danish comics, and one we hope will continue for many years. It was done on a shoestring budget and came off looking like, well, not like a million kroner, but really neat. And there was a real atmosphere of enthusiasm for comics, even from the media who have covered the event surprisingly soberly and smartly.

    As for the Danish prize winners, they were remarkable not only for their quality, but also for what they tell us about Danish comics right now. I’ve written at some length about each of the nominees for Best Danish Comic for Paul Gravett’s Best of 2011 rundown, and the general conclusion bears repeating here: this is perhaps the strongest showing in a single year of the last decade or more. A long time.

    Finally, it seems that Danish comics are shedding years of polished euro-mainstream fetishization of craft at the expense of ideas and expression. These comics have heart, they want to tell you something. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, the majority of them are by women.

    With Danish comics culture having been male-dominated for way longer than those even of our closest neighbors in Sweden and Finland, it seems women understandably have stayed away. The great Nikoline Werdelin has been the main exception to the rule for years. But now women creators are making waves like never before with strong, original work.

    That’s just one factor of course, but perhaps the most spectacular one right now. More generally, however, a new generation of cartoonists less concerned with the trends of the past is emerging, and considering the fact that the two big and longstanding big publishers, Carlsen and Egmont fused and went on more or less to implode a few years back, a surprising number of excellent comics from around the world are still being translated and published in Danish.

    There’s still much room for improvement of course, and it remains a rather small fragile comics culture, but things are looking up!

    Here are this year’s Ping winners:

  • Best Danish Debut: Post-it monstre by John Kenn Mortensen
  • Best Comic for a Younger Audience: Ankomsten by Shaun Tan
  • Best International Comic in Danish: Speedy Ortiz dør by Jaime Hernandez
  • Best International Comics : Habibi by Craig Thompson
  • Best Danish Online Comic: Signe Parkins & Drawings by Signe Parkins
  • The Hall of Fame Award: Rolf Bülow and Søren Pedersen, founders of Fantask
  • Best Danish Comic: Glimt by Rikke Bakman
  • Photo above by Niels Larsen. Check his Flickr set from the night here.


    Tonight is the night of the grand PING gala at Lille Vega in Copenhagen. The resurrected Danish comics award will be handed out in six categories for the first time!

    Who rocked the comics internet in Denmark? Who arrived on the scene with the biggest bang? Who spoke most convincingly to the youth? What’s going on abroad and how with it are we in Denmark? Who will enter the Danish Hall of Fame? And who blew up the spot on these shores?

    These questions and many more will be answered in Lille Vega tonight. Hosted by media personality Anders Lund Madsen and featuring guest appearances from several of his colleagues, the night will also feature a live drawing event, music, and free beer for the early birds! Doors at seven, show starts at eight.

    Get your tickets here.

    KOLOR KLIMAX Shipping Today!

    Kolor Klimax cover illo by Aapo Rapi

    Today the Nordic anthology KOLOR KLIMAX, published by Fantagraphics Books, ships from Diamond and thus becomes available in the US direct market. Chock full of the best and brightest in Nordic comics, one of the comics hotspots of the world right now.

    Look for it in your nearest comics store or wait for its bookstore release coming up!

    Here’s a preview:

    Open publication

    Read more about the book here.

    The Week

    Detail of the Prado Mona Lisa copy

    The week in review

    Running late as usual, it’s a new week, but what? This weekend the great Leonardo show at the National Gallery in London closed and I regret not having had time to post something more detailed than my Weekendavisen review from back in November while it was still open, but that’s how it goes. Suffice it to say that it was a fantastic opportunity to learn about Leonardo and his workshop, as well as the bizarrely skewed presentation the artist’s mega stardom tends to result in.

    The curators’ position seemed to be that there was a strong separation between Leonardo himself and his assistants, and as noted in my review that he executed the London Virgin of the Rocks himself, while comparison with its Paris counterpart quite clearly suggested otherwise. The same goes for the recently resurfaced Salvator Mundi. If the show’s attributions were to be believed, Leonardo must have painted in about five different styles in his later Milanese years, with results of quite remarkably varying quality, much of it lesser than his earlier works such as the Cecilia Gallerani (again, see my review). What the show did, however, was to exhibit a lot of works by his assistants and associates — Giovanni Boltraffio, Francesco Napoletano, Marco d’Oggiono, and others — and thus to offer the attentive viewer the opportunity to make up his or her own mind as to whom did what and in what constellations. I’m sure insights gleaned from this rare gathering of masterworks will reverberate strongly in the literature for years to come, even if strong interests will continue to work against the deattribution — or assignment in part to the workshop — of revered works.

    Preeminent Leonardo scholar Martin Kemp suggests as much in his pointed critique of the exhibition. Although the piece seems more than a little grouchy and continues to champion the pretty but bizarre “Bella principessadrawing, the autograph nature of which — though he claims to have unearthed incontrovertible evidence — still seems hard fully to accept, it makes a strong point on how much extraneous context matters in the contemporary evaluation of Leonardo.

    Also interesting is the discovery at the Prado of what after cleaning has turned out apparently to be a contemporary copy of the Mona Lisa, which in its clarity reveals details that the dirty and much darkened original hide from us today. This announcement comes only a couple months after the publication in the Burlington Magazine of what has turned out to be a major painting, previously thought lost, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in the same museum.

    Other links:

  • “Facebook is using you.” Op-ed written by Lori Andrews for the New York Times on the occasion of Facebook going public. Describes with chilling concision the possible implications for individual privacy of social media and their aggregation of personal data.
  • Andrei Molotiu on Frank Miller’s Holy Terror! Molotiu perceptively locates elements of interest in this highly mannered, mean-spirited comics screed by one of the medium’s ailing masters. I don’t really agree with Molotiu — almost everything he describes, Miller has done better and more compellingly before, but it remains a perceptive piece.
  • 1nce Again: Angoulême

    Signing in the L'Association stand, open again this year!

    I spent last weekend at Angoulême and as usual I covered the festival for The Comics Journal. Here are my post for Friday and Saturday, dealing with the two astonishing shows (co-)curated by festival president Art Spiegelman, and here are my thoughts on the festival as a whole.

    I travelled to Angoulême with representatives of the Danish comics site Nummer9 as well as the Danish Comics Council. We all took photos, and a selection of them are online in the Metabunker photo archive.

    Speaking of archives, here are links to the full Rackham/Metabunker/Comics Journal coverage, carried out by Thomas Thorhauge and myself since 2001.

    The Miracle in Milan

    Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin of the Rocks, 1483-85, oil on panel, 199 x 122 cm., Musée du Louvre, Paris

    Leonardo had only recently arrived in Milan when in 1483 he was given the opportunity to realize in a painting the thoughts he had been formulating privately about art and life. The resultant picture was a watershed in his career, and in Western art.

    The commission was for an altarpiece depicting ‘Our Lady with her son and the angels’ for a newly consecrated chapel dedicated to the Immaculate Conception. At this time, Lombard tradition for altarpiece decoration was characterized by ample gilding and figures arranged declamatorily on relatively flat backgrounds. Leonardo’s so-called Virgin of the Rocks, which he finished a year and a half later, was different in kind: animated figures interacting in a richly detailed, highly naturalistic, rocky environment of great depth.

    Central perspective and the three-dimensional rendering of space were old discoveries; what Leonardo did here was to immerse his figures in their environment more fully than anyone had done before. The characters seem free to act not just as individuals, but in relation to each other — their body language, facial expressions and eye lines suggest complex interaction. The picture has a kind of spatial and psychological coherence that would come to inform Western art down to the modern era when cubism started dissolving rationally defined space, opening the door to abstraction.

    The painting, which normally hangs in the Grande Galerie at the Louvre, is currently and extraordinarily on view in the exhibition Leonardo da Vinci — Painter at the Court of Milan at the National Gallery in London. For the first time ever, it shares a room with that museum’s own, later version of the same subject. Leonardo began work on the second version about ten years later for the same patron, because the first picture had ended up being dispatched to a third party due to prolonged contractual disagreements, and he only finished it in 1508. Sadly the two pictures are placed facing each other in the central room of the exhibition, instead of being hung side by side, which would have enabled more easy comparison. Nevertheless, this is a unique opportunity to compare them and thus to form an idea of the artist’s development in the twenty-five years that separate them.

    After serving for an extended period in the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio, Leonardo da Vinci (1452:1519) set himself up in Florence as an independent master around 1478, and in 1482 he was given the chance to serve at the Milanese court. Milan at this time was one of the largest and richest Italian city states, ruled by the ambitious duke Ludovico Sforza (1452:1508), who had just assumed power after his two older brothers had both perished violently. Ludovico saw in the work of the gifted Tuscan a possibility of legitimizing himself as a humanist head of state and simultaneously to profit from the artist’s ideas for the development of elaborate war machines, which Leonardo emphasized as his central asset in his famous and oft-cited letter of introduction to the duke.

    But it was primarily as a painter that Leonardo came to serve Ludovico, and it is his achievements in this area that are the focus of the exhibition. Presenting an impressive nine paintings fully or partially executed by the master (which amounts to about half of his modest oeuvre), as well as an exquisite selection of drawings and a number of works by his pupils and contemporaries, the exhibition not only offers the visitor valuable insight into Milanese painting under the influence of Leonardo, but also and more fundamentally into how pictures were a way for the artist of reflecting on and comprehending the world.

    Leonardo da Vinci, Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani (‘The Lady with the Ermine’), c. 1488, oil on panel, 54.8 x 40.3 cm., deposited at the National Museum, Cracow

    A number of the drawings exhibited demonstrate Leonardo’s mapping of human anatomy, especially the skull, as well as his studies of the human body, still and in motion. The results of these inquiries are fairly directly reflected in his portraits, notably the picture of Ludovico’s young lover Cecilia Gallerani, better known as the Lady with the Ermine (c. 1489:90), lent to the exhibition by the Cracow Museum.

    Leonardo elegantly swathes Cecilia in the latest Spanish fashion, enclosing her hair in a transparent veil, secured around her head by a black headband. In this way, he accentuates the underlying structure of her skull, but at the same time he flattens her jet black necklace against her white skin to achieve a linear, graphic contrast.

    This complex interplay of modeling in space and drawing on the surface is mirrored in the way he interfolds different layers of meaning. In one sense the picture inserts itself in a chivaleresque tradition, portraying the sitter as a chaste ideal (the ermine with its white winter coat was a symbol of purity), but she is simultaneously and obviously the intelligent and witty woman recorded in the written sources. The natural center of a party, as one critic has described her: beautiful, present, and confident. Leonardo captures her just as she is turning her head attentively, quite probably toward her lover. In this respect, the ermine refers to their relationship: the two first syllables of her last name form the Greek word for ‘ermine,’ while the King of Naples had bestowed upon Ludovico an order named after the same animal a few years earlier.

    On a more fundamental level, the roused predator (which Leonardo constructed on the basis not just of observations of the weasel family, but also dogs and bears) is a potent manifestation of the woman around which it snakes — a totem-like extension of her personality. The sitter’s smooth, elongated and slightly oversize right hand sensually caresses its fur, suggesting her nature, and perhaps that of our own species as such.

    The Virgin of the Rocks offers a similar statement on human nature. The commission required Leonardo to infer the Immaculate Conception, a subject burdened by centuries of theological controversy. The central issue was how it was possible for Mary to give birth to the divine Christ when she herself had been conceived in sin.

    In this picture, Leonardo offered his own, rather unorthodox interpretation of this paradox by situating his protagonists in a primordial landscape, based on scrupulous sketching in the river basin of the Arno Valley. The figures are depicted among — and equated with — different species of plant that are all described with the accuracy of a botanist. He thus connects the Christian mystery with pagan creation myths of man being born of the earth. To him, who sees divinity revealed in natural phenomena, Mary is immaculate because she personifies the order of Nature, and therefore God.

    With her she has the Christ Child, attentively blessing the young John the Baptist, who as we know will one day return the favor by bestowing the first sacrament on him in the River Jordan. By leaving out the Baptist’s conventional attribute of the cross, as well as the traditional, gilded haloes that appear in the more orthodox second version, Leonardo boldly opens the picture to wider interpretation. But he provides us with an important indicator: the angel who, seemingly aware of our presence, looks out of the picture, points toward John. Recent x-ray analysis has shown that Leonardo decided to include this feature rather late in the creative process — originally the angel’s right hand rested on its knee, as it does in the later version. This poignant gesture thus appears as a breathless instance of inspiration, inserted between the Madonna’s tenderly protective hand and the Christ Child’s, raised in blessing. It emphasizes the essential: God’s forgiveness.

    In its very execution, the picture’s soft definition and glowing unity of color reveals Leonardo’s conception of the world. His chiaroscuro, in which form emerges from the dark, derives from his realization that it is impossible precisely to determine where one thing ends and another begins. The world, as he writes in his notes, is “infinitely divisible.” We are nature, and nature is us, in one continuum. The contour of drawing and the brushstroke of painting, thus, are both abstractions that remove us from the real, which is why he tries to eliminate them through his famous sfumato technique, which as he writes “light and shade are blended in the manner of smoke without strokes or marks.” A picture should appear as though it had always existed, untouched by human hands.

    It is however essential that everything appears as if seen by human eyes. In another passage, Leonardo compares his chiaroscuro with how passersby at dusk appear to lose definition in front of our eyes. The mutability of our vision — and senses more generally — is thus a basic condition of experience, while perfect, all-sensing insight belongs only to God. One senses that this is why Leonardo is so intent at revealing the inner life of Cecilia Gallerani — the divine is manifest in individual, subjective experience.

    Leonardo da Vinci, The Ventricles of the brain and the layers of the scalp, c. 1490-94, pen and brown ink, red chalk, on paper, 203 x 152 mm., Windsor, Royal Collection

    The exhibition acknowledges this insight by opening with a drawing showing a partial section of the human brain, in which the individual layers, from skin to neural tissue, are compared to those of an onion. Although certain features are accurately represented, it is a speculative effort. In partial anticipation of modern descriptions of the visual cortex of our brain, Leonardo here suggests allegorically how the eye is connected to three interdependent ventricles: one that contains the imaginative facilities, one that comprises those of the intellect, and one that fathoms memory. It is in the first — the so-called senso commune, or synthetic faculty — that our experiences are processed to provide the framework for our experience. This is where the soul is located and God’s order made manifest. And it is due to this faculty that we are capable of creating images.

    Leonardo’s time in Milan ended shortly after Ludovico was ousted by the French invasion of the city in 1499. As mentioned initially he would return later, but for now he went to Florence, where he painted the ubiquitous Mona Lisa (after 1502, not exhibited), a picture that stands as a revelatory summary of his insight into man’s place in nature, and nature’s in man.

    Shortly before that, however, he had completed another great synthesis, The Last Supper, which he painted in the refectory of the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan between 1492 and 1498. The exhibition devotes a separate space upstairs to this iconic work in which inner life and outer drama are spiritually united in one of the definitive expressions of Western culture. The picture itself is represented through Giovanni Pietro Rizzoli’s faithful copy from around 1520, which elucidates details lost in the dilapidated original.

    Leonardo painted The Last Supper directly on the wall in a dry oil technique, which already started flaking in his own lifetime. A similar issue haunted his next, great commission, a colossal battle picture for the great assembly hall of Florence’s Palazzo della Signoria, which fell apart as Leonardo and his assistants were painting it and became a direct reason for his premature departure for Milan in 1506.

    Such problems also plague his surviving paintings on panel, most of which are also quite seriously affected by later wear and tear: the French Virgin of the Rocks, for example, is extensively retouched and is severely darkened behind several layers of varnish, while its English counterpart’s metallic crispness appears at least in part to be the result of overeager restoration over the years. The Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani is fairly well-preserved, but the black background of the picture is the result of later overpainting. And so on.

    Leonardo da Vinci and Studio, Christ as Savior of the World, c. 1499 or later, oil on panel, 65.5 x 45.1 cm., private collection

    This is also evident in the spectacular new discovery of the show, a picture of Christ as Savior of the World, which follows iconographic tradition in depicting him frontally with his right hand raised in blessing, while in the left he holds a coolly transparent crystal sphere. The picture was rediscovered in an American private collection a couple of years ago and was upgraded from derivative to autograph status. There is no doubt that the design is Leonardo’s — it is documented both in writing and sketches — but its poor condition makes it hard to determine to what extent he himself was involved in its execution. It is uneven in quality, especially when compared with the masterworks that surround it in the galleries, which suggests that it is a studio picture supervised by the master, who personally took care of important details such as Christ’s beautifully painted right hand.

    It makes sense that Leonardo, who continuously emphasized the imperfection of human experience and went as far as to locate the divine in it, left so many pictures unfinished and unrealized. Nevertheless, his work is always expressive of an immense generosity, aesthetically as well as philosophically. It is carried by an unflinching, inspirational ambition, even in the smallest sketches. A continuing reminder of the miracle of our own experience.

    Originally published in Danish in Weekendavisen 18-24 November 2011.